Brewing Beer in 19th Century Africa

Local production and consumption of beer in Africa has a long history. It is a method not only of producing a brew of key social and political importance, but also of transforming bananas, sorghum and millet into a form that can be highly nutritious. As well, the brewing process helps to decrease pollutants in the water.

This is the first of several blogs on local beer production and consumption that draw primarily on historical data, but also with some modern inputs. The following is from Sir Richard Burton’s travels in east Africa in the late 1850’s:

Sipping pombe from a gourd. Source: Kingston-Great African Travellers

In East Africa every man is his own maltster; and the “iwdnza,” or public house of the village, is the common brewery. In some tribes, however, fermentation is the essential occupation of the women. The principal inebriant is a beer without hops, called pombe.

This [drink] of the negro and negroid races dates from the age of Osiris : it is the buzah of Egypt and the ferther East, and the merissa of the Upper Nile, … and the oala or boyaloa of the Kafirs and the South African races. The taste is somewhat like soured wort of the smallest description, but strangers, who at first dislike it exceedindy, are soon reconciled to it by the pleasurable sensations to which it gives rise.

Without violent action, it affects the head, and produces an agreeable narcotism, followed by sound sleep and heaviness in the morning … Being, as the Arabs say, a “cold drink,” causing hydrocele and rheumatism, it has some of the after-effects of gin, and the drunkard is readily recognized by his red and bleared eyes.

When made thick with the grounds or sediment of grain, it is exceedingly nutritious. Many a gallon must be drunk by the veteran malt-worm before intoxication; and individuals of both sexes sometimes live almost entirely upon pombe.

It is usually made as follows: half of the grain* intended for the brew is buried or soaked in water till it sprouts; it is then pounded and mixed with the other half, also reduced to flour, and sometimes with a little honey. The compound is boiled twice or thrice in huge pots, strained, when wanted clear, through a bag of matting, and allowed to ferment: after the third day it becomes as sour as vinegar.

* The Wasukuma make it of two grains, holcus [sorghum] and bajri [millet], pounded and soaked in separate pots till fermented, and then mixed and boiled.

The ” togwa*” is a favorite drink, also made of holcus. At first it is thick and sickly, like honeyed gruel; when sour it becomes exceedingly heady. As these liquors consume a quantity of grain, they are ever expensive ; the large gourdful never fetches less than two khete or strings of beads, and strangers must often pay ten khete for the luxury. Some years ago, an Arab taught the Wanyamwezi to distill: they soon, however, returned to their favorite fermentation.

* ‘togwa,’ a sweet preparation of holcus [sorghum].

Source-Richard Burton The Lake Regions of Central Africa, A Picture of Exploration. Vol.2  1860

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
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9 Responses to Brewing Beer in 19th Century Africa

  1. Pingback: Banana Beer and other Fermented Drinks in Africa | DIANABUJA'S BLOG

  2. togwa is not a beer – it is fermented by lactobacilli and yeasts (which yield lactic acid and not alcohol) – in common with cheeses, pickles etc.

    There is quite a lot of cutting-edge nutritional research on the nutritional benefits of togwa out of Tanzania and also Scandinavia…


  3. Pingback: smirnoff flavors list

  4. Very interesting!! Does anybody have information about the introduction of european brewing into the African colonies, esp. the german pre-WW1?


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